A place to move: Why northern cities are struggling to attract immigrants

Northern communities need new workers. Newcomers need jobs. But most immigrants to Ontario settle in the GTA — can the federal government help change that?
By Jon Thompson - Published on Oct 10, 2019
Thunder Bay
Between 2001 and 2019, roughly 1,000 immigrants settled in Thunder Bay. (iStock.com/benedek)

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Every week until the 2019 Canadian election, TVO.org will look at the federal issues that matter to Ontarians. This week, we tackle immigration in a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1; watch for Part 3 on Friday.

THUNDER BAY — In 2015, the North Superior Workforce Planning Board warned that the Thunder Bay District would need 50,000 new “in-migrants” within 25 years just to sustain the existing economy. It also noted that the region was on track to see retirees outnumber workers two to one in the same period of time. “We have got to quit farting around, talking about an objective that might happen. The impact of our declining and aging population is already affecting us now,” says Madge Richardson, the board’s executive director, who notes that the situation remains largely unchanged.

The situation is similar in Sudbury. Charles Cirtwill, president of the Northern Policy Institute, an independent think-tank, says that northeastern Ontario will need 110,000 more workers within the same time frame: Sudbury alone will require around 35,000. According to Julie Joncas of the Far Northeast Training Board, an employment-planning council, 43 per cent of the Timmins-area labour force will have reached retirement age by 2036.

"There's no question we're going to have to solve our social and economic problems and massively increase international immigration in order to sustain our communities at the level we're used to,” Cirtwill says. “Either that, or shut out the lights.”

The problem, for Ontario’s northern urban centres, is that most immigrants to the province make their home in the GTA — 77 per cent, according to an August report from the Conference Board of Canada. Between 2001 and 2019, fewer than 1,000 immigrants settled in Thunder Bay.

Reggie Caverson, the executive director of workforce planning for Sudbury and Manitoulin, has seen this problem play out for decades. “I think it’s symptomatic of what’s happening in Canada,” she says. “People will immigrate into Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver and stay at their first point of landing.”

In June, federal immigration minister Ahmed Hussen announced a new federal Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot involving 11 cities across the country. Five of them — Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, Sudbury, and North Bay — are in northern Ontario. The pilot aims “to spread the benefits of economic immigration to smaller communities by creating a path to permanent residence for skilled foreign workers who want to work and live in one of the participating communities.” As many as 2,750 immigrants will be eligible for acceptance each year.

“I’ve seen with my own eyes a number of companies that have literally been turning away multibillion-dollar contracts, not because they don’t want the extra business but because they don’t have the workers to carry out those contracts,” says Hussen, the incumbent candidate in York South–Weston. “It points to a particular problem in northern Ontario.”

In Ontario, the pilot focuses on urban centres in the northwest and northeast. ““We wanted to make sure there was accountability and there was infrastructure,” Hussen says. “Our focus is not just on the attraction to the north but the retention.”

Green party leader Elizabeth May agrees with the approach. “We need to plan ahead and create hubs where the cultural supports, the language supports, will be there in more remote areas,” she says. “It’s not enough to direct Syrian refugees to northern Ontario or northern Quebec because there are jobs there.”

May points to success stories such as Peace by Chocolate, a chocolate shop in Nova Scotia that was founded by Tareq Habhab, a Syrian refugee, in 2016. Habhab hopes to hire 50 new refugees and provide guidance to 10 refugee-founded businesses by 2022.

“How do we organically, but also with support from the federal government, make sure there are Arabic-speaking people of cultural similarities who then have the skills to create something as beautiful as Peace by Chocolate?” May says.  

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh says that he would make the program permanent. “It’s a first step, and I want to double down to do everything possible to help communities who are in a pretty desperate situation where we’re losing a lot of people,” he says. “If you recognize communities are going through a problem, it requires bold action that’s proportional to the problem.”

Frank Pullia, the Conservative candidate for Thunder Bay–Superior North, was a member of the North Superior Workforce Planning Board when it released its report in September 2015. Then a councillor, he expressed concerns about its conclusions, saying, “I don’t believe we need 50,000 people. People are using that information to make it look like the sky is falling and I’m saying it’s not falling.”  

Pullia believes the workforce deficit will be roughly 25,000, or half of what the report suggested. He cautions that the current approach is too centralized in the federal government and that any solution should involve all levels of government.

Some in northern Ontario say that encouraging immigration should not be the region’s only focus when it comes to meeting workforce demand. The fastest-growing demographic there is the Indigenous population, which is expected to grow by 21.5 per cent in the Thunder Bay District by 2041 and 18.5 per cent in Greater Sudbury by 2030.

Singh says that governments need to ensure that Indigenous people have an equal opportunity to fill the region’s needs. “It’s investing in equal funding for Indigenous education, investing in people who live on and off-reserve,” he says.

Jonathan Coulman, executive director of Algoma Investment Workforce Corporation, which produces labour-market data, points out that only 400 people moved to the Algoma District between 2011 and 2016. “I’m pro-immigration, but it’s just one piece of the bigger puzzle. We need to continue to retain people and develop people domestically,” he says. “The reality is that immigration is going to be the smallest component of where we’re going to find people or develop our local workforces of tomorrow. Most likely, those people are already here, or they’ll be people we’re bringing back from other parts of the province.”

Singh believes that the region’s low housing costs and natural landscape should make it an appealing destination. “If we connect people to the north, they get a job, they’re more likely to put down roots, and they’re more likely to stay,” he says. “That’s a way to try to breathe life into the north and try to share the beauty of the north.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Reggie Caverson's surname. TVO.org regrets the error.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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